Oh Hyundai, I remember when you were the punch-line of every joke. Your cars often prompted questions like: Wait, what kind of Honda is that? Yet, you had none of the Japanese reputation for reliability, or the rich legacy and patriotic trappings of American automakers. How far you’ve come, gradually climbing the pricing ladder all the way up to the Genesis, which fully-optioned can top out at $43,000. Not so long ago, a $43,000 Hyundai would have been a laughable accounting error. Soon it will be merely the penultimate driving experience from this rising welterweight.
If the idea of the Korean automaker muscling into that price range made you drop your monocle, you might want to sit down. The crew from Seoul are readying a new high-end luxury missile that takes aim at segment stalwarts like the Lexus 460L and the Mercedes Benz S550. It is the 2011 Equus. Pricing isn’t set, but rumors put the new flagship between $50,000 and $60,000. And if that’s a little steep for your tastes, you’re probably not in the market for the $90k Benz or the $70k Lexus, or any of the other leather-wrapped road yachts (Cadillac STS 4.6, BMW 750Li, Audi A8 L) the Equus has in its cross-hairs.
In a line-up with its competition, the Equus doesn’t stand out; but that’s the point. Consider this the ultimate expression of the Hyundai/Kia strategy: target a competitor’s car, now give it more features, a lower price, and a better warranty. Wrap it in some attractive (if, excepting the Sonata, forgettable) sheet-metal, and watch your market share grow. The Equus is in the same mold, only writ large.
The styling eschews pretty much all of the dramatic “fluidic sculpture” design language that has made the Sonata a sell-out, opting instead for a restrained muscular look that errs on the side of tasteful. It’s not without style, though. Chrome touches are abound, with dashes of the shiny stuff slashed like warpaint below the headlights and along the base of the doors.
Two Infiniti M Series-like HID headlights – underlined by a string of de-rigueur LED lights used for turn signals - frame a chrome grill with Benz-esque flavor. The lights carry your eyes to the side of the car, as a pronounced character line swoops through chrome door handles on its way to the rear of the car, where it fades away into a crisp sweeping fold that rises over the rear wheels. The line emphasizes the rear wheel drive-train, as well as the slightly wider rear tires.
From the back, the fold meets the taillights and dives down to become the seam between the edge of the optional power trunk and bumper. Like the front, the rear is nicely sculpted, if a bit sedate. The most striking feature is the parallelogram-shaped, chromed-rimmed exhaust tips integrated into the body work. LEDs are again present in the tail lights, which sweep from the sides to the back in a single brushstroke.
Handsome 19-inch chrome wheels complete an ensemble sufficiently menacing to usher the occasional wayward plebeian off the road; however, any head-turning by the proletariat will likely be out of curiosity rather than awe. Like its smaller stable-mate, the Genesis, the Equus is notably lacking in Hyundai badges. On both cars the curvaceous “H” is relegated to the trunk lid. The Equus differentiates itself further from its bourgeois brothers by sporting its own winged badge, lifted from the first-generation Equus, released solely in Korea.
With styling this safe, miscues are few and far between, and fall mostly into the “nits to pick” category. This said, the tiny black camera node extending from the center of the grill is somewhat jarring. Here among all this well-sculpted form was a nasty bit of function poking right out of the fascia’s focal point. While it may be keeping drivers safe from lane-departures and emergency braking, it has all the charm of a deviated septum on a supermodel.
Luckily, it can’t be seen from the inside. The interior is where Hyundai’s attention to detail becomes evident. No matter which trim you opt for –“Signature” or the smells-like-money “Ultimate” – expect to find pleasing surfaces everywhere you look, sit, or touch. Alcantara suede lines the roof, acres of stitched, matte leather cushion nearly every surface unencumbered by gadgetry, and real wood trim is beautifully integrated into the doors, center console, and steering wheel, ensuring your every egress and ingress will be trumpeted by the horrified gasps of Prius owners.
The list of standard features is roughly the length of a pre-apocalyptic grocery list; suffice it to say that Hyundai went down the list of every feature available on its competitors and did its damnedest to work them all into the flowing lines of its pitch-perfect cabin. After a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the mostly intuitive control layout – the sheer number of buttons is overwhelming at first – you are likely to start playing with the “Driver Information System” (DIS), the obligatory rotary dial/big button control that displays car functions through the front and optional rear LCD screens.
The interface should be reasonably intuitive to anyone who has ever used an iPod click-wheel, and soon you’ll discover the joys of the Equus’ 17 speaker, 608-watt Lexicon sound system by Harman. The system was built from the ground up to deliver pure hi-fi joy for this car, whether you are watching a DVD, listening to HD radio, or blasting Clapton on your iPod via the USB interface. Expect the full home-theater experience, with your battery of speakers dutifully imitating the passing roar of a helicopter or the migrating rat-a-tat of the aerial dogfight displayed on your optional rear LCD screen.
While the “Signature” trim line includes an impressive list of “are you kidding me?”-type goodies, the “Ultimate” Equus boldly pushes into the super-luxury category with a full rear-seat command center. All HVAC and entertainment center controls are present, along with an adjustable lumbar support. Although you lose the much-maligned “hump seat,” the center console is more than a fair trade for the loss of passenger capacity. Fully adjustable seats are standard on all four corners for every Equus, but only the Ultimate’s right rear passenger gets treated to a fully heated and adjustable shiatsu massage. Opening up the center console reveals a deliciously unnecessary remote for the massage system.
This combined with the reclining seat-back, LCD screen, and raising footrest makes the Equus only a fireplace short of a very cozy living room. Lifting yet another layer off of the rear console reveals not a fireplace, but a tidy thermo-electric refrigerator. Although you shouldn’t count on it to chill those Pabst Blue Ribbons on the way to the country club, it will keep cold drinks cold, and on longer trips it will happily take your libations down a few degrees from room temperature.
It should be noted, sadly, that even with the front seat fully retracted and folded – via easily accessible buttons – this 6’4” VIP was unable to avail himself of the footrest in any meaningful way. Particularly disheartening to watch was the way a five-foot writer with 3-inch heals barely cleared the seatbacks in front of her. While I’ve long suspected many captains of industry have Napoleonic Complexes, it seemed a shame that the rest of us will probably be unable to use that feature without scuffing up the front seat-backs.
Riding in the seat is a pleasantly placid affair, with the air suspension, specially insulated glass, and liberal use of sound-damping materials conspiring to hide the world from you. Visually the cabin is airy enough, with lighter gray Alcantara giving much needed levity to the black leather interior of our test car. Visibility is good, and if you’d rather it wasn’t, retractable window shades obediently deploy to the back and rear passenger windows, hiding you from the ire of angry shareholders.
If you deign to drive your own motorcoach, you’ll find adequate power on-tap to escape any pursuing mob. The Equus’ 4.6 L Tau V-8 will smoothly propel you away from the uncouth with its 385 horsepower. Don’t let the numbers mislead you; at around 4000 pounds, this car is more Clydesdale than Thoroughbred, so don’t expect smoking tires or head-snapping acceleration when you drop the hammer.
If you insist on spirited driving, a button press lands you in “Sport” mode, which modifies the steering, transmission, and suspension responses in order to make the car a tad more fun to drive. Speed freaks will also enjoy this six-speed automatic’s manual mode, which will let you toggle the shifter up and down to select your own gears. Shifts are reasonably speedy and smooth in this mode, and the LCD screen tucked in between the speedometer and the tachometer helpfully changes to a gear selection display.
If you get carried away, an alphabet soup of electronic nannies (ABS, EBD, CBC, BAS, TCS) kicks in to keep you shiny side up. Red collision-warning lights, radar, and even a vibrating “haptic” seatbelt are all part of an elaborate electronic safety net designed to make sure anyone even marginally aware of their surroundings can keep it between the lines. If all of that fails, a suite of nine airbags deploys to protect all four passengers.
All in all, the Equus conveys utter seriousness. From the exterior paint choices (black, gray, silver, and white) to the interior leather choices (black, beige, maroon) and ice-blue interior lighting, there is not a wink or a grin suggesting that this is Hyundai’s first foray into the segment. Inside and out, the car is mature and tasteful, with just a touch of ostentation in the 19-inch wheels. No rookie mistakes here, just a solid lock on what the luxury car-buyer wants.
If you’re skeptical, you’re not alone. Hyundai itself plans to sell only two to three thousand Equi a year in North America. I think this is modest. While the well-heeled may turn up their noses at this faux-Benz and others may balk at the notion of a $60,000 Hyundai, a certain segment of customer will doubtlessly appreciate the long list of standard features and finer touches presented by the Equus. Whether it’s the iPad owner’s manual that comes standard, the sticker price, or the at-home demonstration that wins them over, many value-minded drivers will be charmed by this car.